By - Roseli Serra

For almost 30 years, I have observed many teachers and have noticed some of them have had difficulties setting and correcting homework for several reasons from time management to lack of interest on the part of the students. I have then started to think about the theme "homework" and made myself the following questions:

  • What is the quality of the homework that is been assigned?
  • Is the homework valuable and meaningful to the student?
  • Does the homework serve to engage students more deeply with the material?

Much of the current rhetoric surrounding homework focuses on the time students spend on it, since they are always too busy or too tired to set some time for doing their homework. Children mostly depend on their parents who are always busy or do not know how to help. Teenagers, this peculiar audience, are either quite busy with their school work, or are putting all their energy on their own world finding "something more pleasurable to do". On the other hand, teachers are also overloaded with work and might not be able to handle correcting workbooks, compositions and projects apart from the lessons they have to prepare.

Having said that, should homework be neglected? I'd say no! Not at all!

Why homework?

Homework in a foreign language class is essential, as it provides opportunities to the students to further practice the language. This allows the language to really set in and take hold. In addition, homework is a vital part of learning. It is the time students spend outside the classroom in assigned activities to practice, reinforce or apply newly acquired skills and knowledge and to learn necessary skills of independent study.

Experiencing and reflecting about the theme made me ask some questions to myself, which led me to some interesting arguments and conclusions in favour of homework. Some of the benefits are:

  • Students retain class-taught language;
  • They reinforce what they have learnt;
  • They develop study habits;
  • Their cognitive understanding of language increases.

For one thing, particularly in EFL situations (especially in monolingual countries), the students do not get enough interaction with English during class time. Many times, students only get three or four hours a week of lessons. Or to put it another way, it takes 6-8 weeks to be in an English environment 24-hour day. If it's important enough to teach, it's important enough to practice and elaborate on.

Students can do things away from class that they can't do in class- like write and read longer passages, design projects, etc. Surprisingly, most students want to do something away from the classroom. In adult classes where I've been reluctant to give homework in the past, students have come up to me and asked for it. As long as it is real practice, and not just busy work, you don't have to feel bad about assigning homework.

Engaging students with homework:

Students should feel that homework tasks are useful. Homework tasks should be interesting and varied. It should include not only written tasks, but tasks focusing on all skills. Furthermore, we teachers have to make sure homework is developmentally appropriate, differentiated, and able to be done independently. It is a challenge to design homework assignments that meet individual SS's academic and developmental needs, but, when homework is too hard or too easy, it may have a detrimental effect. Teachers should strive for the "just-right" challenge for each student and should ensure that homework is "do-able" without the need for outside help from a parent, peer or tutor.

As teachers we should reflect on the purpose of homework before assigning it to our SS. I have noticed that it is worth helping students understand the purpose and value of the homework and give it the value it deserves. If students perceive homework as busy work, meaningless, and of little value to the teacher, they may tend to be less interested in learning. Some ways to increase the engagement factor is to allow students choice and voice in their homework assignments.

Students' attitude to homework should be improved, for example, they would be allowed to contribute with ideas to design their own tasks. Let them choose which problems to do, or which topics to write on, or allow them to stop when they believe they understand the concept. For me this leaner centred approach and negotiation will indeed divide the responsibility of the learning process between students and teachers, not to mention the fact that their sense of achievement will be increased.

In the 21st century, when technology is available, user-friendly and hands-on, homework might become a very interesting activity to be done extra- class. I believe that online homework is one way to achieve SS engagement with it as well as it might stimulate them to produce language with tools they are familiar and feel comfortable with. Examples of this could be collaborative edublogs, platforms like Edmodo, Google Tools, web tolls and apps, such as slideshare, voicethread, poplets, padlet, glogster and many others.

Tips for setting homework:

Assign homework in the first class. There are several reasons for this.

  • It sets a good precedent. If you set a precedent, students will often begin to do this on a regular basis without your prompting.
  • Students expect it.
  • Students usually remember their first day of class very well. It's difficult to get an "always" if they remember you didn't assign any on the first day of class.
    • Take the time to explain the homework carefully, and your students will react to the importance you give it by doing more of it.
    • Never allow yourself to give homework just orally. Always write it up on the white/ e-board, no matter how simple it is. If you don't, you will always lose some students. An alternative is to have a student come to the board and write it up as you give it to the class.
    • After assigning homework, get students to report back the assignment. Once you have given out the homework, always ask a student or two what the homework is. This can sometimes be a real eye opener as to what they have understood.
    • Try to make homework interactive. Have students prepare by calling one another on the telephone (or smartphones) or via E-mail groups, WhatsApp Groups or Google Docs .For example, SS can work collaboratively and each of them can choose a word that they would like their friends to find out the meaning.

Correcting Homework:

Students quickly tune into the mood of their teacher. If the teacher presents homework correction as a valid and interesting part of the learning process it will be infectious and homework corrections will never be boring again!

Useful tips on correcting homework and have your students engaged:

  • Turn it into your warm-up
  • Create speaking opportunities
  • Peer-correction: Give students a chance to compare their answers in pairs.
  • Vary the order in which exercises are corrected. This ensures that students are alert and are following the correction process.
  • Change the time of the lesson in which homework is corrected.
  • Break the correction into stages
  • Use the workbook wisely
  • Select the exercises
  • Giving individual feedback: Write out SS errors on slips of paper and place them in envelopes, one for each student. They can only open the envelope at home, then they will check if it is theirs, if yes they will correct in their books, if not in the following class they will explain the error contained in their envelope to the class. Variation: The teacher can send feedback of the homework via email or similar private message
  • 10. Add fun to the comments you write on the homework, and create a fun dialogue with your SS.
  • 11. Give students a chance to show off their homework. This can be as simple as positive feedback on a "well done job".
  • 12. Broaden your view and have mercy!

Enjoy your teaching! If you won't, who will?

*Roseli is an enthusiastic educator in Brazil. Graduated in English and Portuguese, she works as an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer, Cambridge examiner and e-moderator. She's a member of the IATEFL LT (Learning Technologies) subcommittee and works, teaches and trains professionals in the area of TD and LT. She's also a psychologist, a mentor and a coach certified by SLAC (Sociedade Latino Americana de Coaching). She has a post-graduate degree in Applied Linguistics and is now doing her MA studies in Science of Languages at UNICAP (Universidade Católica de Pernambuco). She truly believes in life-long learning and teacher development.